First Impression Ministries

First Impression Ministries
Aaron Soto

Guests form opinions about your congregation before they ever hear the sermon or experience the worship service. These opinions are based upon their first impressions in the first few seconds of their visit. This reality helps us to understand how vital ushers, greeters, and other first impressions ministries are.

My family decided to try a restaurant in a small town near our district campground. When we walked in, instead of being welcomed by a smiling host, we were greeted with a very unpleasant odor. We wandered over to a table, and after a few awkward moments, a waitress appeared. She pushed greasy, dog-eared menus into our hands and walked away without even taking our drink orders. By this time my kids were looking at me with raised eyebrows and nervous smiles; it was time to leave. We will never go back.

First impressions are lasting impressions. Have you ever had a fabulous experience at a restaurant on your first visit? Have you ever had a horrible experience at a restaurant on your first visit? It usually takes one visit to categorize an establishment because first impressions are powerful and lasting impressions.

We must realize that guests walk into churches with a consumer-driven mentality. They frequent restaurants based on the waiter’s attentiveness and bathroom cleanliness. Most people who visit our churches prefer to shop at stores where employees are knowledgeable and engaging. They order their latte at the coffee shop that serves the most genuine smile. They are savvy shoppers who demand respect. These folks also know when they’re getting good customer service and when they’re not. These same people do not check their consumer mentality at the door when they walk into a church for the first time. All five senses are on full alert! They are taking everything in with a consumer’s mindset. Kind of scary?

The good news is that most of our guests do not have complicated expectations; they simply appreciate it when we sincerely demonstrate that we value them and are prepared for them. They are real people with real needs.

Many churches give little thought to “first impression” ministries. To clarify, the ministries that fall in the “first impressions” category are: Ushers Department, Greeters Department, Guest Services Department, Church Cleaning Department, Nursery Department, Grounds Keeping, Church Bulletin Ministry, and Audio/Media Department.

Failing to prioritize first impression ministries is one of the worst mistakes that a local church can make in our consumer-driven culture. On the other hand, exceeding expectations pays big dividends with guests.

Very few people will return to a place where they felt marginalized, devalued, or targeted, whether it is a restaurant or a church. On the other hand, businesses or churches that are intentional about communicating a caring attitude and experience for their guests will have people coming back. The high-level goal of first impression ministries is to build a caring connection with guests while removing all barriers that might prevent them from having a dynamic experience with Jesus Christ. We want our first impressions to enhance the likelihood someone will experience salvation instead of hoping they can be saved in spite of their first impressions!

Bruce Barton was an American business executive and congressman during the early 1900s. He was a famous advertising consultant in his day, and wrote a best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows. Barton rightly observed, “When I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”

It is possible to have a polished welcoming team and anointed preaching and music, but not have toilet paper in the stall a guest happens to be visiting. How would one missing roll of toilet paper affect a guest’s experience? There are no small things in first impressions ministry.

It is important to look at our first impressions ministries through the eyes of a guest. We can become so familiar with our facility and our processes that we miss negative touch-points that are obvious to guests. Pull into your local church parking lot on a Sunday morning during rush hour. Walk through the front door and pay attention to the sights and smells. What do you hear? What are the encounters with ushers and greeters like? Look at your signage and church bulletin with fresh eyes. Another idea would be to send a “secret shopper” from your community to experience your church and follow up with a good debriefing meeting with the “shopper” and the first impressions staff.

Key First Impressions Staff: Ushers and Greeters

Ushers and greeters are key players in first impressions ministries; they are the front line of connection to the guest. It is important to be selective about who serves as an usher or greeter. It takes more than a breath mint and a smile to be effective in this area. Ushers and greeters must be committed to being engaging and friendly, even if being extroverted does not come naturally to them. It is awkward for a guest to encounter an usher or greeter who is uncomfortable and nervous around strangers. Ushers and greeters must be taught to step forward and initiate genuine and warm communication.

Most teams rise to the level of expectation placed upon them. In our local church the ushers and greeters are expected to arrive early and stay late. They are expected to inspect the facility carefully prior to prime time to insure that everything is ready and in order. Our expectations for appearance, attitude, and responsibilities are communicated with print material and through regular training. Our team is also prepped to deal with disruptions, distractions, and emergencies. In addition, they are taught proper treatment of guest speakers.

Our ushers understand that when the usher jacket is on they are not to be leaning on anything, chitchatting with members, or distracted from their duties. They are careful to refer to new families as guests, not visitors. (The term “visitor” implies the visit is a one-time thing and the individual is a target. The term “guest” conveys an attitude of hospitality.) They are also intentional about inviting guests to meet the pastoral staff in the hospitality suite after the service.

Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Every first impressions staff member must be fully aware that guests are walking up to our church door in response to Jesus’ call. They are about to greet a new friend who is about to become family.

Aaron Soto serves as senior pastor of Apostolic Truth Church in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is blessed to have an amazing wife, Heather and three beautiful children. He is also blessed to have the finest ushers and first impression teams in the world.

This article “First Impression Ministries” by Aaron Soto was excerpted from the Pentecostal Herald magazine. November 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.